Books

Rolling Stone: how one man's ego destroyed an iconic magazine

Controversial tell-all book, 'Sticky Fingers', paints an unflattering picture of Jann Wenner, publisher and co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine

29 October 2017 - 00:00 By Tymon Smith

November 9 will mark 50 years since US counterculture and rock enthusiasts first picked up a small newspaper with typically hopeful, happy San Francisco lettering and an image of John Lennon in the film How I Won the War on its cover.
In the first issue's editorial, Rolling Stone's 21-year-old publisher Jann Wenner acknowledged that many of his readers "probably wonder what we are trying to do".
"It's hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper ... Rolling Stone is not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that music embraces," he said. "We've been working quite hard on it and we hope you can dig it. To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bullshit, and bullshit is like gathering moss."
Wenner's magazine would become the barometer of the cultural revolution that was sweeping through the US on the coat-tails of the psychedelic drugs and sexual exploration that were evident on the magazine's doorstep in places like San Francisco's Haight Ashbury.As author Joe Hagan writes in his new book Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, there was a time in the late '60s when picking up the latest edition "was like holding a piece of hot shrapnel from the explosion of the 1960s while it still glowed with feeling and meaning".
FROM SHARK TO WHALE
But by the time it entered the 1990s, Rolling Stone was a poor shadow of its salad days no-bullshit ethos - out of touch, too slow to get with the latest developments in music and representative of the establishment that it had started out seeking to challenge.
Writers like Hunter S Thompson, Greil Marcus, Ben Fong-Torres, Cameron Crowe and Dave Marsh were no longer regular contributors and its star photographer Annie Liebowitz had become the darling of Vanity Fair.
The one person still flying the flag was Wenner, and as Hagan's book makes clear, the fortunes, missteps and attitudes of Rolling Stone's half-century journey have been almost completely shaped by his personality.Torn between wanting to reflect his times and wanting to be as famous and loved as the rock stars he courted, Wenner's gift for seeing the money-making potential of the counterculture has also been his Achilles' heel.
He first approached Hagan four years ago to write the book and gave the author unprecedented access to himself and his celebrity friends - Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono - hoping, one imagines, for some sort of hagiography he could display in the foyer of one of his palatial homes.
Instead Hagan has produced a book that has Wenner foaming and declaring the resulting product to be "something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial".DON'T TELL JANE
Wenner's Rosebud is his sex life, which Hagan, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, has crafted into a subplot for his book. This distracts from the focus on the broader cultural narrative in which Wenner doggedly pursues the changing zeitgeist from the streets of the Haight to the offices of Wall Street and the rise of the celebrity culture that was gleefully fuelled by Rolling Stone and led, depressingly, to the election of Donald Trump.Wenner, a Berkeley drop-out, used money from the family of his future wife Jane Schindelheim to start Rolling Stone. He would be married to her for almost 30 years in a relationship where his own bisexual predilections were tolerated as long as his wife didn't know about them - their partnership being based primarily on their shared desire for dollars and name recognition.
In fact, Wenner was always struggling with his feelings for men and as Hagan writes, his relationships with women were more about social status than affection.In the book one of his former roommates describes how Wenner slept with the daughter of UN diplomat and then took the bed sheets and used them as a tablecloth for a dinner party. He placed the woman's plate over a noticeable stain and giggled childishly at her for the duration.
He hit on everyone at his office, was rumoured to have slept with Jagger and finally left his wife for Matt Nye, a fashion model, in 1995.
IMAGINE THERE'S NO EGO
Wenner never seems to have minded burning bridges but it's not always clear whether he lit the fires for personal, financial or editorial reasons.
He ruined his relationship with Lennon by agreeing to turn an interview published in the magazine into a book without the singer's consent; he spearheaded a definitive but accusatory account of the Rolling Stones' disastrous 1969 Altamont concert, which temporarily disrupted his relationship with Jagger (the magazine's most featured cover star); and he did little to temper the excesses and demands of his star writer Thompson, who became an increasingly grudging contributor after the '70s.
At his 60th birthday party Springsteen performed a song with the lyrics I never guessed a man whose magazine once changed my life/ Would one day want to have a threesome with my wife.
INFAMOUS RAPE STORY
In the past decades Rolling Stone has suffered reputational damage as a result of Wenner's hubris and unfortunate love of status above editorial integrity.He's allowed his celebrity friends to edit profiles of themselves published in the magazine, fired a journalist for quipping that Wenner loved any album that sold  eight million copies, used his influence to keep bands he didn't like out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2014 published the embarrassing, under-verified story about alleged rape at the University of Virginia that cost millions of dollars in defamation suits.

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